Tennis players looking to improve their game often turn to hitting with other players. But that can have limited success if your hitting partner has limited consistence. Others turn to hitting walls, but it can be challenging to control the angle at which the ball comes at you, and you are limited in the pace you can use on a wall.
One tool that tends to go underutilized is the ball machine. The ball machine is offered at most tennis clubs and sometimes cost less to use than a regular court fee. You can use them to work on your groundstrokes at any length and pace, but it can help you with other aspects of your game as well. Here are a few scenarios you can work on with a ball machine that will sharpen your game.
Problem: You Struggle with Return of Second Serves
A player's second serve tends to be shorter in the box and slower than the first serve, and the pace can be dramatically different. On a ball machine, set the ball speed at a lower number and position the trajectory so it comes to you as a service would. Now you can determine which stroke is more comfortable for you, whether it be a topspin return or a slice. It's best to work on one side of the court at a time (unless you'd also like to get in a cardio workout).
Problem: Mid-Court Lobs
Professional tennis players make lobs look easy on court. But for the developing player, these shots can be a problem, yet most developing players don't spend a lot of time on lobs. It can be difficult to ask your hitting partner to feed you high, loopy balls, especially if they struggle consistently. You can set your ball machine to aim high, and you can even vary the spin on the ball, so you can get used to various trajectories from different spots on the court. You should set the machine to move you around for this drill. Taking a few on the backhand side is also a good idea.
Problem: Your Touch Volleys Are … Not Good
If you want to see improvement in your game and make life difficult for your opponents, developing your net game is essential. Learning to volley can pay big dividends if you're playing someone who would prefer to stay on the baseline. Your chances improve if you can use all of the courts and land your volleys very short into the court. Start developing this skill by setting your ball machine to hit slower-paced balls that land inside the service line. If you want to get used to the speed at which the next ball comes to you, you can also set the machine to send the balls over faster. This is a great way to work on quickly shifting your feet and focus on keeping your racquet up and your grip firm.
Spending at least an hour a week on a ball machine can help you build consistency with your shots, and is a great workout. Using a machine is perfect right now as many don't feel safe practicing with a large group. Think of the ball machine as one machine, but many partners. You (and your opponents) will see a significant difference in your game as you incorporate the use of a ball machine into your practice time.